As an Ancient Civilizations major, you’re expected to remember hundreds of dates, but only one is drilled into you again and again: 323 BC. That’s the year the mighty Alexander the Great died, and the Hellenistic age was ushered in. In his brief life, Alexander the Great from Macedon changed the course of history so much that a cheese-puff munchin’ Busch Light drinkin’ college girl (spoiler alert: it’s me) was learning about him over 2,000 years later. That’s some staying power.
Even though much of ATG’s Kingdom of Macedon, including his birthplace of Pella, is now part of modern-day Greece, El and I were still itching at the chance to explore the homeland of one of history’s greatest generals. Our Balkans Road Trip was the perfect opportunity to master the famous (no really, it’s a thing) Alexander the Great gaze.
After a memorable/pants-peeing time in the Macedonian forest, we drove into the city center of Lake Ohrid, one of Macedonia’s most visited spots. Although Google Maps was on our shit list, we followed the blue dot into the narrow cobblestone streets of Ohrid’s Old Town. It was a nightmare dodging the pedestrians and cars, and we unsuccessfully went around in circles trying to find our hotel. Finally, Elliot parked and I got out to track this place down. After several wrong turns, I finally found what I thought was hotel but the name was written in Cyrillic. I poked my head in and a woman standing in the doorway of her room looked me in the eye and closed the door as I said, “Excu-..” Finally, one of the waitresses at the hotel’s attached winery directed me to reception.
I found Elliot and gave him the receptionist’s directions to the free parking lot across town. When we couldn’t find it , I called the hotel and the woman told me that the lot was opposite the Hotel Riviera. We drove down the street and didn’t see a Hotel Riviera, so El started up his data and saw that there was a Hotel NEW Riviera nearby, but no parking lot in sight. El’s data soon ran out, and we were back to square one. The parking card we were given was written in Macedonian, a Cyrillic* language, so that wasn’t any help. I ran into a mini-mart and then to a pharmacy to show the card to the workers and ask for their help. The pharmacist on duty explained to me that “opposite” actually meant “behind” and that the hotel wasn’t actually on Plaistranka Street like our hotel lady said. She told me that there was a parking guy in blue shorts who would know for sure where the lot was. I thanked her and spotted the guy in jean shorts a few hundred feet away. I chased him down and yelled, “Hey!” He turned around, gave me a confused look, and picked up his pace to get away. I yelled “Hey!” again and shoved the parking card in his face. I kept pointing to the card and making a “Where?” pantomime, but he said something in Macedonian while backing away from me. When I realized that I was probably scaring the hell out of him, I backed off. I then turned and saw a parking guy in a blue SHIRT across the street. He pointed me in the right direction, and we turned into the parking lot that was BEHIND the Hotel NEW Riviera and finally parked.
We were both pretty salty by the time we got out of the car, but Lake Ohrid’s scenery quickly melted that away. The juxtaposition of a medieval monastery next to an ancient amphitheater was part of Old Town’s charm, and the lake was like glass. Everything is written in Macedonian, so we weren’t able to tell who the impressive statues located throughout the lakeside square were. The only one I recognized from my Macedonian research was St. Kliment (also spelled Clement), the patron saint of the city. Outside of Old Town, the rest of Ohrid is pretty pedestrian friendly town. There are plenty of walking streets lined with local shops, most of which sell low priced junk. I did get a really cool clay necklace from Atelier Handmade Jewelry, a great shop that had multiple pieces I wanted to buy. Lake Ohrid is known for its pearls, with the Talev and Falev shops being the most legit, but I found necklaces more my speed at Atelier; definitely worth a stop. After our complimentary tasting of an “ancient Ohrid grape” wine at our hotel (the owner also owns a winery), and a Skopso beer at a bar where we toasted to the day’s misfortunes, we had a traditional Macedonian dinner at Antiko in Old Town. At that point in the trip, all of the cuisines started to blend together, so I can’t even tell you what made the food uniquely Macedonian.
At breakfast the next morning, we tried the red pepper anjar spread that Macedonia is known for before leaving for Skopje. Although we were fortunate to have another scenic drive, all the road construction made it a slow-moving one. Our hotel, the Modern Inn Boutique Hotel, was in the less developed part of Skopje but was really nice and even had an indoor pool. We walked to the downtown area; there you can see how much the city has grown, and continues to grow, with all the ongoing construction projects. We could definitely see Skopje becoming a more popular travel destination in the near future.
Our first stop was Mother Teresa’ s childhood home, which is flanked by statues of her. Born in Skopje, Mother Teresa spent her early years here with her wealthy family. The house is free to enter, and the rooms are set up like when she was living here. Much like her, the displays were simple yet impressive. We were able to see her sari and baptismal certificate and later learned that we had visited her house on her Feast Day (the day she died). A tad spooky but still pretty cool.
We walked through the streets busy with people on their lunch break before entering into the MASSIVE main square. Set along the river, the crown jewel is the bad ass fountain/statue of Alexander the Great. The city spared no expense on this thing, and impressive is an understatement. At its base, the fountain is ringed by water-spouting lions and Alexander’s generals. A twenty-five foot tall column emerges from the center and is topped by an in-motion equestrian statue of Alexander the Great. Although there are several statues of Macedonia’s most famous citizen, the one in Macedonia Square blows the others away.
We had a snack and beer at Macedonia’s first craft brewery, Temov, and walked across the Stone Bridge to Skopje’s Old Town. Much like Ohrid, the pedestrian streets were lined with shops and led to the Old Bazaar; the Arab influence is definitely present, and for a brief second I felt like I was back in Morocco. We stopped at the Old Town version of Temov, where workers were already getting shit-faced with their buddies.
Our next stop was the Archaeological Museum of Macedonia, a very modern building considering it housed artifacts that were thousands of years old. Before we purchased a ticket, I was assured by one of the workers that there were actual Alexander the Great artifacts in the museum. The reason I asked was that his birthplace of Pella is now in modern-day Greece, and the museum/archaeological site there has the majority of artifacts from Alexander’s lifetime. Although the museum did have some impressive ancient treasures, the only Alexander the Great-related exhibit was a set of mannequins that were supposed to represent him and his parents, Philip II and Olympias. It was at best, cheesy, and at worst, annoying.
From the museum, we crossed back to downtown Skopje via a beautiful stone bridge decorated with statues of people who represented Macedonia’s civilizations. One of the most impressive things about Skopje was the sheer number of statues and memorials in the city center. We passed an impressive Park Woman Warrior statue and an eternal flame into which someone had carelessly tossed a Pepsi bottle. While in Macedonia, we saw a lot of people just throw their trash onto the ground.
On our way back to the hotel, there was a street lined with tourist trap restaurants that promised “authentic” genres of food. Out of curiosity we looked at a menu for a Cuban restaurant. We flipped through, and seeing no actual Cuban dishes asked the hostess what kind of Cuban food they had. She confidently said, “This is all Cuban.” That was enough for us to pass on eating there. We ended up at an Italian restaurant called Da Gino, known for their desserts. The pizza and bruschetta we had for dinner were decent, but the profiterole “cake” (aka layers of ice cream stuffed profiteroles) was enough for me to recommend the place. Back at the hotel, a show called Ultimate Survival: Alaska was playing on TV, and we got sucked into watching several episodes before bed. I definitely had a survivalist dream that night; my subconscious clearly didn’t remember how I did in the last hairy situation. The next morning, after a breakfast of bürek and the housekeeper walking into the room when I didn’t have pants on (was mid-changing), we hit the road for country #7: Kosovo.
I think a lot of people planning a Balkan/Mediterranean trip would skip over Macedonia, and we learned that they’d definitely be missing out. There’s plenty to see and do, and the landscape is stunningly beautiful. Even if the Museum of Archaeology was a bit of a disappointment, to say that we walked in the land of Alexander the Great 2,340 years after his death (323 BCE!!!) was worth the trip. Get yourself to Macedonia, and you too can walk in the land of a giant….
*When we first entered Macedonia from Greece, signs used the Greek alphabet but turned to Cyrillic the closer we got to Ohrid.
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